Peter Hitchens is an author and columnist for the Mail on Sunday. In this interview with Jericho he discusses the power structures at the heart of Europe, the role of Russia, the migrant crisis and why we should never be too optimistic.
A former Trotskyist, he is now one of the most influential social conservative voices in British politics. His blog can be found here.
In 2015 you gave a talk whose thesis was that the European Union was the continuation of Germany by other means. How complete do you believe the domination of Europe by Germany to be, and has anything changed since then?
Germany since reunification has been bound to dominate Europe. It has an enormous economy, a huge population and a vast land mass sprawling across the centre-West of the continent. It has a powerful culture, literature and is a very energetic country. Once it had been unified it was bound to dominate the rest of continental Europe. The question was always how it would do this.
It tried to do so by straightforward raw power twice in the twentieth century and was prevented largely by outside interference. I think it’s quite sensibly resolved that it won’t pursue that course again. It seems to me that the European Union is quite clearly the device for allowing Germany to dominate Europe without being quite as ill mannered about it as it was in the past. I don’t know why anybody would pretend otherwise.
At the heart of the European project is the Elysée Treaty between France and Germany. France accepts a symbolically important role while Germany gets the true importance. France gets a nuclear force, a seat on the UN security council, all kinds of dignities which make it look important but the real power belongs to Germany. Since 1989 Germany is now back to where it was before – a very, very, big country that touches on the borders of almost everybody.
And do you not think that since the election of Macron and the stalemate in German politics has changed the situation?
This is just top dressing. I’ve got no objection to Germany dominating Europe, it seems as natural to me as Everest dominating the Himalayas, it’s just bound to do so. The European Union seems to me as good a way as any of managing it, although I’ve never felt that Britain ought to be part of a continental political or economic system. I think it was a mistake for us to have joined in the first place, a mistake that is now being increasingly acknowledged by people who have realised that it hasn’t worked out very well. The difficulty is in extricating ourselves after forty years of being in it.
France’s economy, population or geographical position can’t be changed by a change of president and Germany’s domination can’t be altered by the fact that Germany’s politics are currently a little unresolved. The fact remains that the continuous government carries on whether there is a coalition or not. It’s not like the United States where the whole place stops between presidents as they have no permanent civil service.
You refer to the two World Wars, and if we’re looking for other candidates for European hegemony then surely Russia would be the other one?
This is the difficulty. Russia is in Europe but the Europe that has been constructed for the purposes of the European Union is a Europe that stops at the Russian border because it’s quite clear that a political system in which Germany and Russia coexist would be one in which they fight each other. That’s why all talk of Russia joining NATO or the EU after the collapse of the Soviet Union has been idle; it would completely unbalance these organisations if it came in.
It’s exclusion is implicit in the existence of them. Again, I can’t see how else they could be managed. The difficulty is not so much in the exclusion of Russia, which is inevitable, but in whether the EU readopts the general expansion towards the east that was the policy of the Germanic powers in Europe from about the 1880/90s onwards. And that’s the difficulty that has arisen in Ukraine…
Indeed, for the moment the EU seems to have taken its foot off the pedal in terms of eastward expansion, do you think this is something that might resume?
Well on the contrary, I think that eastern expansion is a settled policy. One of the problems that’s occurred since 2014 is that Ukraine was previously a non-aligned country, it could have remained indefinitely neither in one camp or the other, but the truncated Ukraine that has come out of the crisis is one that is very keen on a Western alignment and could never now be persuaded back into a non-aligned position. This bodes for a worse crisis in the long term.
There are remaining problems in Georgia – which very much wants to be part of NATO and the EU. And there are some people in NATO, the EU and the United States who think that’s a good idea. So the idea hasn’t gone away but it’s very disturbing to Russia that this sort of thing is pursued.
Do you think that the UK and Russia, from a geo-strategic standpoint, are natural allies in that neither wants one country dominating continental Europe?
Well that’s an old, forgotten British policy which we have no power to enforce any longer. Whatever balance of power that exists in Europe is these days enforced and policed by the United States, not by Britain. We don’t have any ability to alter these things and we haven’t had any for some long time.
Russia generally operates on the basis that there will always be a threat to it, from every direction. This is why there is no positive word for safety in the Russian language. The principle word for security or safety in Russian is bezopasnost – it’s a negative word meaning “without danger”. They simply assume that they will always be at risk from their neighbours, whether from the West or the East. That is their permanent state of affairs and current policies pursued by NATO, the EU and the US don’t really help that situation.
Britain and Russia have almost no reason to have anything other than the sketchiest of diplomatic relations. They have almost no economic contact, they have no physical contact. I’m often baffled as to why people are so preoccupied with Russian matters in this country at all.
There was a wonderful satirical column in the old Daily Telegraph called Peter Simple, and one of the things that he cooked up was an imaginary war between Sweden and Yugoslavia which could never get going because they could never find each other as they were so far apart. Any conflict between Britain and Russia seems to me to have the same characteristics. What would it be about? How do we find each other? Their navy can barely get out of its ports and moves at walking pace, ours is equally immobilised and apart from that where do we come into contact?
So why do you think the British press especially is so anti-Russian?
It completely baffles me. It’s partly because a lot of news is melodrama and we need a villian. With the Soviet Union having collapsed there has been a great absence of villains in the great international soap opera of European politics for some time. It’s made it rather dull!
But there’s also a more serious problem which is explored in Peter Conradi’s excellent book Who Lost Russia? And it’s very crude and rather distressingly so. It’s almost like an old Marxist-Leninism propaganda text but the truth is that the eastward expansion of NATO and the revival of the Cold War has been very much the work of arms manufacturers in the United States who lobbied powerfully for this policy during the Clinton era.
All this is detailed in Conradi’s book, as is the fact that George Kennan, who invented the term Cold War, was one of the principle opponents of NATO expansion when it first came in front of the United States senate. He said it a was ridiculous and dangerous policy which insulted those people in Russia who had destroyed tyranny, at considerable risk to themselves, and who were trying to restart with a clean slate. He thought it was a grave mistake and Kennan, who had a mind far superior to that of most foreign policy experts and think tanks today, should have his message remembered.
Going back to Europe, there’s lots of talk now of an acceleration of the federalisation process now that Britain has left, do you see that happening?
I simply have no idea. It’s often talked about but I think that to have a really closely united European system then they would have to have an inner union of those countries which were capable of fully adopting not merely the single currency but also the single economic policy which is necessary for a single currency to operate properly. And that would restrict it to the original six members, if that.
What then happens to the countries that have come into the EU since that era? Do they have an inner core and an outer one? It’s very difficult to achieve though it must be tempting for Germany in particular to do it.
On the other hand Germany benefits greatly from the devaluation of the Deutschmark, which is what the Euro represents for them. Certainly it’s global trade is hugely enhanced by having a vastly undervalued currency with which to trade. There is a theory that Germany has gained much more than it has lost from the economic chaos in the southern European countries which have never been able to cope with the supposed discipline of the Euro.
I have no personal knowledge of the people or the institutions in which such things would be discussed. You could guess that they might want to do it but the practical difficulties would be huge.
Do you think Germans are aware of how much the Euro has benefitted them?
I think German business is very aware of how much the Euro benefits them, particularly in trade beyond the Eurozone. I’m quite certain that although German goods sell on quality, as they will no doubt claim, they also sell on price and using what is effectively a strongly undervalued currency must help them.
Whether the people of Germany think so I don’t know. The German working class seems to have undergone a pretty sharp drop in its standard of living in recent years and I’m not sure they feel they’ve benefitted. That said, this may have been worse had Germany not entered the Euro. Germany simply isn’t as lapped in prosperity as it was twenty years ago, life is a lot harder.
And how do you think, both Germany and across the rest of Europe, the recent influx of refugees will impact upon that?
I think Germany has been very disturbed by the influx of what you refer to as refugees, I would say migrants – the people involved cease to be refugees once they reach Turkey. I’ve got nothing against people seeking to improve their lives but I think we have to be accurate in our description of people. They didn’t make their way into Western Europe because they were fleeing from something, they came to Western Europe because they saw the highest standards of living and the better opportunities they believe it will offer them when they get there.
The problem with that is that the people who are struggling most in the countries where large numbers of economic migrants are those who are most affected by it. It results in a situation where you have a very large number of people who are not fully assimilated and cultural clashes at the same time as you get people who feel that their standard of living, and perhaps their security of employment, is threatened. This is not a recipe for stability or necessarily for optimism. There’s a big problem there. I still can’t really understand what possessed Angela Merkel when she threw the national gates open. I’m not sure she had the faintest idea what she was doing but I’ve long thought she was an immensely overrated politician anyway.
The EU establishment appears to be rather buoyant at the end of 2017; they seem to feel they’ve overcome this wave of populism, despite several populist parties doing quite well in elections. Do you think we’ve seen the crest of the populist wave?
History shows that these things are entirely unpredictable and are often subject to forces that we can’t conceive or prophesise. For instance, if there is another economic crisis on the scale of 2008, or worse, then what will happen to these so-called populist parties who have established a considerable electoral base and might benefit from that?
Everything could be changed by a major economic crisis and it’s by no means impossible that there will be one. So I would always council against smugness or self-satisfaction at all times. I think people can be unwise to presume that just because they’ve got through the past year the next year is going to be okay.
Western Europe is undergoing a period of considerable decline in the standard of life of its people. And this is going to cause political dislocation as people realise that things are not going to get better year on year. Housing will be more expensive and harder to find, secure employment becomes rarer – all things that are rampant in this country and very much exist on continental Europe as well. And that means that political demagogues tend to do well.
Do you have any solutions?
I have no solutions. Twenty years ago when I first started engaging as much as I could in national politics I thought that I had some ideas that might make a constructive difference but I found that nobody was particularly interested in listening to them. I came to realise that the politics of this country tends to be conducted on a tribal basis rather than the basis of reason. And if you try to put forward an idea on the basis of the fact that it’s actually a good idea and will work, then you might as well go home. What you need to do is to mobilise a tribe.
You haven’t seen any evidence that people are getting tired of tribal politics?
Well, no, on the contrary. The votes for the political parties at the last election were enormous. People were returning to tribes. The referendum, of which i disapproved, almost created new tribes, which I thought were in the process of being born for some time, but of course as soon as the referendum was over, we sank back to normal electoral politics, which is tribal politics.
Well on that bleak and rather depressing tone…
No, no, no! Pessimism is a very good way of staying cheerful. You mustn’t assume that having a sensible, realistic estimate of what’s going on makes you miserable, what makes you miserable is being ludicrously optimistic and ill-informed and then being slapped in the face by reality.